ATQ talked with our sister site at Desert Swarm about the ranked matchup on Sunday between the #18 Ducks and the #15 Arizona Wildcats. Many thanks to Kim Doss for providing some insight ahead of what is going to be a great match.
ATQ: Head coach Adia Barnes is now in her seventh season for the Wildcats. Before her arrival in 2016, the previous 11 seasons were lackluster, even taking into account the difficulty of playing in the Pac-12 conference. Coach Barnes has turned the program around and is on a consistent upwards trend. What have been the keys to her continued success?
Kim Doss: Adia Barnes’ sustained success at Arizona comes down to recruiting. She’s not afraid to run her team like a pro team, taking advantage of the “free agency” nature of college sports these days. She was big on getting quality transfers even before the portal and immediate eligibility. It’s how she brought Aari McDonald to Tucson and launched the program to heights it had never seen before. Since the introduction of the portal, she’s been a prolific user of that option, using it to supplement high school recruiting before she was able to land the big names. Since the program has improved, she’s now getting some of those big-name high school recruits Arizona could never get before. She’s still the leading scorer in Arizona history, and she was an undersized player who just worked hard to get the most out of what she had. As a coach with a national title game appearance on her resume, she is regularly in on top 10 players and is starting to land them, which is something no Arizona coach before her has been able to do. She just brought in Arizona’s best class ever as far as rankings, then did herself one better and signed a top 5 class for next year. That recruiting success was largely built on her force of character and love for Arizona. She’s extremely charismatic and she can sell this place because she played here. She was able to convince players like McDonald, Sam Thomas, and Cate Reese to come to Arizona before she had anything to show them simply because she’s very personable. Now, she has something to show McDonald’s All-American level players like Maya Nnaji and Paris Clark.
ATQ: Arizona suffered a devastating early-season loss with Lauren Ware experiencing a season-ending injury. Could you describe for us the meaning of losing a player like Ware and the challenges going forward for the Wildcats?
Kim Doss: The loss of Lauren Ware takes away Arizona’s best post defender and much of the team’s size. She was the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-5. Arizona now has just one player over 6-foot-2 in Nnaji, who is 6-foot-4. Ware’s never been a big offensive threat and she’s not really much of a rebounding threat considering her size, either. Her 4.2 rebounds per game were 37th in the league last season, while the smaller Cate Reese led the team and was 15th in the Pac-12 with six rebounds per game. Ware was Arizona’s top shot-blocker at 1.3 per game last season, placing her 10th in the conference. Leadership can be as important as tangible stats, though, and Barnes likes how she communicates on the floor. She credits Ware with keeping the team on the same page during games. The loss also makes Arizona more vulnerable to foul trouble with three players who can cover the post. The Wildcats have leaned more heavily on Nnaji than they probably expected her freshman year. She’s averaging 15.2 minutes per game playing behind Reese and Esmery Martinez. She’s still learning, but she’s made very good use of her time on the court by averaging 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while appearing in 13 of the team’s 14 games. Both of those totals are superior to the 5.7 PPG and 4.2 RPG in 21.8 MPG that Ware had last season. Nnaji’s especially good at drawing fouls. She’s second on the team with 7.1 free throws attempted per 40 minutes.
ATQ: Oregon brings some height challenges for Arizona with the presence of 6-8 Phillipina Kyei, 6-4 Grace VanSlooten, and 6-7 Kennedy Basham. How do you think the Wildcats respond to the challenges that the Ducks present?
Kim Doss: Height and length have been difficult for Arizona to deal with this season and the loss of Ware is part of that. The Wildcats simply aren’t that big. UA’s two losses came to Kansas and Stanford, two teams with dominant posts and rosters that are, in general, taller than the Wildcats. Those teams have a lot more experience to go along with their size, so it may not be quite the same with Oregon, which is relatively young in the frontcourt. Still, the size of the Ducks could be a problem for the Wildcats.
ATQ: Who are the Arizona players that we should be keeping an eye on, and why?
Kim Doss: The player many people out West may not have heard much about is Esmery Martinez. The forward transferred to Arizona from West Virginia this offseason and she’s fantastic. In the past, the Wildcats have been a below average rebounding team. That’s not so much the case this season and it’s largely because of Martinez. She’s relentless on the boards, including the offensive glass which is something that Barnes has not valued in previous years. Since Martinez is so skilled at it, there’s more emphasis on that this year. As a sophomore at WVU, Martinez averaged a double-double with 13.6 PPG and 11.6 RPG. This is her senior season (although she still has a COVID-19 year if she wants it), and she’s averaging 11.6 PPG and 8.9 RPG. She’s fourth in the Pac-12 in total rebounds per game and second in offensive rebounds with 3.4. (An interesting point in this game is it features the two best offensive rebounders in the league with Martinez and Oregon’s Phillipina Kyei.)
ATQ: Let’s say Arizona wins the game. What did they do to secure the win? Let’s say Arizona can’t pull it out – why did they drop the match? Finally, please give us your score prediction.
Kim Doss: One thing to be aware of if you haven’t watched Arizona much this season is that it’s not a typical Barnes team. Under her leadership, the program simply hasn’t had the offensive personnel to be a really good offensive team. McDonald was the offense for three years, then Barnes tried to make it work last year by bringing in some transfers that just didn’t coalesce, especially offensively. This year is different simply because there are a lot of scorers and they do it in different ways. Shaina Pellington gets to the rim and the free throw line. Loville has a sweet jumper. Reese scores from down low and has a nice high-low connection with Martinez. Martinez shoots relatively well from everywhere, but feasts on the putbacks. If there’s a weak link as far as scoring, it’s Lauren Fields, but she provides solid defense. Arizona also has scoring off the bench from Nnaji, Kailyn Gilbert, and Helena Pueyo.
Considering that Arizona is not as strong on defense this season as it has been in the past and Oregon is always great on offense, this should be a high-scoring affair. Oregon averages 82.4 points per game while Arizona averages 79.5. That’s 13th and 21st in the nation, respectively. Oregon has an offensive rating (point per 100 possessions) of 114.3, placing it fifth in the nation. Arizona’s offensive rating is 106.4, good for 26th in the nation.
Still, despite not being as good on defense as it has been in recent years, Arizona is still a very good defensive team. You simply cannot play for Barnes if you don’t defend. She said after the loss to Kansas that if they are going to lose, they’re going to lose playing how she wants to play. The Wildcats are 26th in defensive rating (opponents’ points per 100 possessions) at 80.5 points per 100 possessions. Oregon is 74th at 84.1 points per 100 possessions. How much that had to do with strength of schedule is certainly open to debate; Oregon played a tougher out-of-conference schedule, but Arizona has already faced Stanford in Maples Pavilion in conference play.
There are no odds online for this game. There are win probabilities at Her Hoop Stats, though. That gives Oregon a 55.3 percent probability of winning this game on the road and a margin of 1.6 points. I think it’s wrong. I think the Wildcats protect their home court through superior defense in a narrow victory. I’ll go 75-73.